Seriously, you’re never alone in the digital economy. Which is why everything today is the sharing economy – data sharing, that is.
The Furious franchise not only pounded through an Easter launch record this weekend, pulling in more than $100 million (U.S.); it showed how a business model can adapt, evolve and, when necessary, pivot on the heels of data.
It’s the business story of our times, according to Allen Lau, who is both a narrative junkie (sci fi, please) and a digital pioneer. As co-founder of Wattpad, the Toronto engineer has built a global platform for storytellers on the back of data. And he thinks he can use the same power to take on Hollywood, from Toronto.
“Ultimately, the value of the company is in the community, in the stories, in the data that we have,” Lau told the latest session of #RBCDisruptors, on the Future of Work.
Lau was joined on stage by Michele Romanow, the serial entrepreneur who stars on CBC’s Dragons Den and is building her fifth business, Clearbanc, to offer financial services to freelancers and small-scale entrepreneurs.
Wattpad and Clearbanc face the same epic challenge: how to scale their user base without catching the attention of global platform giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon.
Wattpad started as a story-sharing service, and quickly became a platform for 45 million users. Lau has recently expanded the social platform to include Wattpad Studios, a venue for his global community to develop movie and TV scripts, and Wattpad Brand Solutions, for writers to connect with businesses wanting better copy.
The makers of Furious used similar data to adjust their franchise, which has changed significantly over eight movies – and $4 billion — since 2001. Less car racing. More gun fighting. Fewer biceps. More of you know what. (Read Bloomberg’s excellent data story here.)
“We get lots of signals about why a story is fascinating,” Lau said. “If you look at the entertainment industry, this is what they’re looking for.”
Lau’s secret weapon is a user community that is fiercely loyal to Wattpad, and to each other. He may not have Facebook’s mass, but he’s got quality that allows him to track engagement in ways few others can.
Take the typical novel that’s developed on Wattpad: With two billion data points collected daily, the company tracks what’s popular, gives personalized recommendations and can even tell what pages or chapters cause readers to tune out.
Same with Clearbanc. It wants to be become so addictive to solopreneurs that it can tailor its services – and user experience – in ways no universal platform can match.
With a growing number of on-demand, self-directed workers, the gig economy is increasingly about the efficient communication of data.
Clearbanc’s platform integrates with Airbnb and Uber, among other gig-economy platforms, and Romanow said those and other companies offer huge amounts of information to sellers.
“It’s these same kind of tools are allowing us to expand quicker than was previously possible,” she said.
Platforms like Clearbanc and Uber are allowing anyone to work for themselves and build a following.
“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for people to start being entrepreneurs on platforms and then move off to grow on their own,” she said. “The benefit of the gig economy is that everyone gets to be their own entrepreneur.”
Lau and Romanow have both built and sold companies before. Despite the lure of Silicon Valley, both have decided to keep Toronto as their home base.
“For me, it’s home,” Romanow said. “But Canada’s two per cent of the global market, and so to have a big enough company you want to have something with global reach. You can certainly build that from within Canada.”
Lau said Canada’s top-notch universities and quality of life made it an easy choice, and Toronto’s multicultural makeup has helped him expand Wattpad to 50 languages.
“We have all the elements to build a tech ecosystem: talent, capital, incubators, and companies at escape velocity,” he said. “For me it’s not a matter of whether the next Facebook or Google will come from Canada, the question is when the next Facebook or Google will come from Canada.”
John Stackhouse and Peter Henderson contributed to this piece.
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